Georgia To Lift Jury Trial Suspension On Saturday

By Rosie Manins
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Law360 (October 5, 2020, 8:19 PM EDT) -- In-person jury trials can resume in Georgia starting Saturday, under county-specific plans prepared by state court judges, but a hold on speedy trial restrictions will remain.

Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold D. Melton said Monday that he'll lift the suspension of jury trials in his next statewide judicial emergency order in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The Oct. 10 order will be the seventh consecutive monthly extension of Justice Melton's initial March order and comes as a coronavirus-infected Georgia probate judge and her husband battle the illness in separate hospitals.

While chairing a Georgia Judicial Council meeting via Zoom, Justice Melton said that local jurisdictions have been submitting to him their plans for safely staging in-person jury trials during the health crisis and will soon be able to implement them. He said courts should continue to use remote technology whenever possible and adhere to state and federal health and safety guidelines for the pandemic.

"I'm just excited about how the judges across the state have taken on the planning process," Justice Melton said. "The reports as they're coming in are all very thoughtful and very thorough, and I sense there's an energy for getting freed up to do what we all want to do."

Justice Melton was hesitant in early August to lift his jury trial suspension, given the COVID-19 infection and death rates in Georgia, but conceded by the end of that month that cases had to move forward with no end to the pandemic in sight. In his September order, he allowed county courts to resume grand jury proceedings at their discretion and said on Monday that he'll likely fully open up grand jury proceedings sometime in the next quarter.

State judges were urged to share their experiences with jury trials going forward so procedural guidelines could be fine-tuned.

"If you stumble upon solutions that we may not have thought about or that you think might be helpful to the body, I do ask that you share your experiences with the task force," Justice Melton said. "We do want to learn from things that go right. We also want to learn from things that go bad, so we can all have the benefit of it."

But Justice Melton indicated he's not yet ready to make a decision on reinstating Georgia state deadlines for speedy trials, in response to a question from Stone Mountain Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Asha Jackson, of the DeKalb County Superior Court. The Georgia Supreme Court is currently considering a handful of complaints from criminal defendants about the hold on statutory limitations.

"That's likely to be the last thing to be included in our judicial emergency orders going forward," Justice Melton said. "We do realize that's an issue. That's something we are actively looking at right now."

Justice Melton said a determination on speedy trial limitations must factor in the backlog of cases and clearance rates as a result of the health crisis and compare that to pre-pandemic court conditions.

Cobb County Probate Judge Kelli M. Wolk, president of the Council of Probate Court Judges of Georgia, said during the meeting that Brantley County Probate Court Judge Karen Batten was on a ventilator in a hospital battling COVID-19. Judge Batten's husband also had the virus and was in intensive care at a separate hospital, Judge Wolk said.

"We would ask for your prayers for both of them and their family and those in the office," she said.

Georgia's probate courts have been particularly hard hit by COVID-19, Judge Wolk said during a council meeting in August when announcing Chattooga County Probate Judge Jon M. Payne had died. Dougherty County Probate Judge Nancy Stephenson also died from the virus in April.

The Georgia Department of Public Health reported Monday that the state had more than 320,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and about 7,200 related deaths since the pandemic began.

--Editing by Gemma Horowitz.

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